In 2015, when Father Rob Galea stepped onto the stage for Australia’s version of the popular competition show X Factor wearing his Roman collar and black Converse gym shoes, he certainly didn’t fit the mold of the typical contestant—or the typical priest. Still, he wowed the judges with his performance and earned himself a place on the show. Not bad for someone who says he was kicked out of his school choir in elementary school.
He entered the competition, he tells St. Anthony Messenger, because he saw it as a perfect opportunity for evangelization. And that, says Father Rob, is his goal: to spread the Gospel message and a message of hope in whatever way possible.
His time on the show did not last long, though. During the early “boot camp” phase, which required him to be away from his parish and other responsibilities, he made the decision to drop out of the competition.
“It was just getting to be too much, and too much about me and about success,” he says. “They were asking questions like, ‘Isn’t this the best thing you’ve ever done in your life?’ and I’m thinking, No, this is wonderful, but there’s more.”
Of his time on the show, he says, “It did the good it needed to in Australia, and then I stepped away.”
So how did someone who says he never wanted to be a priest and couldn’t sing or play the guitar end up on that stage? Well, for the answer, you have to go back to the beginning.
A Dark Time
Father Rob grew up in Malta, which is just south of Italy in the Mediterranean Sea, where he lived with his parents and younger siblings, Rachel and Joseph. He says he had a comfortable life surrounded by family and a menagerie of animals. “Some of my happiest childhood memories are set in that home with our animals,” he recalls.
During his teen years, though, Father Rob found himself in a dark place. He became rebellious and often fought with his parents. He would sneak out at night to go to clubs, and by the time he was 16, he found himself hanging out with a rough crowd of people, some of whom were dealing drugs. He grew his hair long and pierced his ear. He began drinking excessively, smoking, and experimenting with various drugs, as well as stealing—just for the sake of the thrill. Over time, he fell deeper into his addictions, but says, “I didn’t know how to get out of it.”
The lowest point, he recalls, was when he got caught in a lie about one of the guys he was hanging out with. The group was well known for violence and Father Rob’s lie put him right in their crosshairs. They came looking for him, and Father Rob, fearing for his safety, retreated to his room where he spent most of the next six to eight weeks. During those weeks, he struggled with severe anxiety and fell into a deep depression, even considering suicide.
That rough period of his life, though, “is greatly instrumental in my work,” he says.
A Ray of Hope
When he was 16, Father Rob was invited to a local youth group meeting and says, as a result, he had a conversion that changed his life.
“Actually, the invitation wasn’t even for me; it was for my sister, Rachel,” he writes in his autobiography, Breakthrough. “I wasn’t particularly religious at that point, but I was insulted not to be included and said so.”
He left the sanctuary of his room to attend the meeting and recalls hearing the youth minister talk about having a personal relationship with God, where he could talk with God just like having a conversation with a friend. The concept seemed foreign to Father Rob at the time, but intrigued him. He remembers thinking that he wanted to have that type of relationship. So he went home and tried to find it.
“I put an empty chair across from me and talked to it as if someone were sitting there. Day after day, I talked. Day after day, nothing happened,” he says. On one particular day, though—December 2, 1999, to be exact—he says he encountered Jesus. Father Rob recalls releasing all of his pain and anger at God for his struggles. After laying it all out and breaking down in tears, a great sense of peace came to him.
“I could see that [God] understood my pain. He was perfectly aware of all my sin, my darkness, my mess, and my shame, and he loved me anyway,” he says.
A Change of Heart
That is when things began to change. Suddenly, Father Rob began to feel joy and hope for the first time in a long while and says he couldn’t get enough of it.
“I wanted to share the hope that I had experienced.”
The youth group that he had at first reluctantly attended became a constant in his life. It also introduced him to the world of music. The band for the group needed a guitarist, so he decided to step up.
“I simply picked up the guitar, watched MTV, played the chords that they were playing, and then played church songs on the same chords I learned,” he recalls. His mom, who played guitar, also offered help.
If I had a thousand lifetimes, I’d choose to be a priest in each one. I love being a priest. —Father Rob Galea
For the next few years, he spent time traveling, playing music, and growing in his faith. Despite his deepening faith, though, he never even considered the priesthood. In fact, he had a girlfriend during that time and says he used to pray: “‘God, I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll sing, I’ll dance, I’ll go around the world. But please, Jesus, don’t let me become a priest.’ Because for me, the priesthood was something cut off from reality—far away from the world that I knew. It seemed so countercultural, and there were never any priests that I could associate with.”
But, as so often happens in life, God had other plans. While performing in Italy, Father Rob met Padre Giovanni, who exhibited the type of energy and joy in his priesthood that Father Rob had not witnessed. He went home that night and prayed, “Lord, if I can be anything like this man, I will consider the priesthood.”
The road to his ordination had different stops along the way. One of those was when he started the Stronger Youth program in 2008 with the late Bishop Joe Grech on the heels of World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia. The program consists of a series of youth retreats, rallies, and small groups, which are run throughout the Diocese of Sandhurst in Victoria in hopes of reengaging young people in the Church.
Two years later, Father Rob was ordained and says: “If I had a thousand lifetimes, I’d choose to be a priest in each one. I love being a priest.”
Ministering through Music and Media
Currently, Father Rob holds down quite a few responsibilities. He is an associate pastor in a parish two hours from Melbourne, Australia. When asked how he got to Australia, he jokingly says, “an airplane,” before answering that he first went there during a gap year while in seminary and served at a parish in the bush. His heart, he says, is for the young people of Australia, pointing out that the country is largely secular.
In addition to his parish responsibilities, he works full-time as director of youth for the Sandhurst Diocese. And then there’s FRG Ministries, which supports new and engaging means of evangelization, from music, social media, and video production to mission trips and outreach events. It also provides educational programs and resources for schools and Catholic parishes.
“I go into classes, I go into schools, and I have a thousand students in front of me. I go and speak, and I’m a priest. They ask, ‘What’s this priest going to do?’ But then I go grab my guitar and sing a current pop song—a song by Skrillex or a song by Sia—and they think, Wow, he speaks our language. That’s what music does. Music is a universal language. It transcends the mind and goes to the heart. I go out and preach the Gospel, and I do that through music,” he says.
“I do this around the world as well. I get to speak to about 200,000 teenagers a year, and it’s an honor, such a privilege,” he says. The goal of his ministry is to spread the faith “one step at a time, one soul at a time. These young people need a sense of hope, a sense of purpose, a sense of excitement for life. Many people believe that their purpose is in doing something. But, ultimately, your purpose is in being something, and that is a child of God.”
He does so through the six albums he has released, as well as his popular YouTube channel, which has over 16,000 subscribers. On the channel, he posts videos for many of his songs and performances, as well as videos addressing various questions regarding the Catholic faith, such as “Five Ways for Christians to Deal with Stress” and “Tattoos and the Catholic Church,” in which Father Rob discusses his own tattoos.
You might not think that Father Rob has time for anything else, given his parish work and various ministries. But that wouldn’t be true. This year, he released his autobiography, Breakthrough: A Journey of Desperation to Hope, which tells his story. He says he wanted the book to be more than just that, though.
“I go to schools and then I leave, not having a good follow-up. So I thought, Let me write this down so they can take it to their schools, take it home, meditate, pray, and apply it to their own lives. Because it’s one thing to tell a story, but another thing to give the story to the person who’s listening.”
He wants readers to realize that if he can find hope and a relationship with Jesus in this darkness, then anyone can.
But his journey doesn’t end there. Next year, Father Rob’s story will reach even more people when a motion picture based on his life will be released. The Singing Priest is currently in pre-production.
He says he was a bit scared when he first found out about the movie, but also excited.
“I’m excited that it is going forward, at the same time recognizing this is also making me vulnerable because people know very intimate parts of my life. But I don’t think we have time to worry about ourselves. We need to go out and share the Gospel.”
He says: “I will use anything I have, everything I have to evangelize, to give people this joy and this trea-sure that I have found. If it’s through film, through music, through books, whatever it takes. I’m not interested in fame. I’m not interested in influence if that influence is not entirely focused on glorifying Jesus.”
How does he do it all? He attributes his ability to accomplish so many things to being surrounded by a great team of people, as well as pillars he has in his own life. Those pillars are daily exercise, daily prayer and meditation, and taking time out, which he says he takes unapologetically because, “What use am I to people if I am broken?”
Looking at where he is now and thinking about how far he’s come since his troubled early years, what would Father Rob say to his younger self?
“I often think about that,” he says. “I probably would put my arm around my shoulder and say, ‘Rob, it’s going to be OK. You’re gonna have an awesome future. You’re gonna see so many great things in your life. Look at God and just trust God.’ I think I would have saved so much heartache if I would have just trusted God earlier.”
Still, he says he doesn’t have any regrets. “I’m grateful even for the mistakes. I don’t like the fact that I’ve hurt so many people on the way to where I got. But, at the same time, I’m grateful for even the negative experiences because through that I’ve grown to understand humanity, to understand myself, and understand the mercy of God.”